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Mark Landler and Eileen Sullivan
9 hrs ago

WASHINGTON — The White House’s directive to hide a Navy destroyer named after Senator John McCain during President Trump’s recent visit to a naval base in Japan was driven, administration officials said on Thursday, by a fear of bad visuals — the name of the president’s nemesis clearly visible in photographs of him.
In truth, it would have been a bad visual for only one person: Mr. Trump.
Yet an effort to airbrush an American warship by covering its name with a giant tarp and then hiding it with a barge demonstrates how anxious the Trump administration has become about the grudges of the president. It also shows the extraordinary lengths officials in the bureaucracy are willing to go to avoid provoking Mr. Trump.
Sailors from the McCain were not invited to Mr. Trump’s speech on another ship, the Wasp, at the Yokosuka Naval Base, although crew members from most other American ships at the base were, a Navy service member based at Yokosuka said.
When several sailors from the McCain — wearing uniforms that bore the ship’s name and insignia — turned up anyway at the Wasp to hear Mr. Trump’s speech, they were turned away, the service member said. The service member, who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to speak publicly, said that a gate guard told the two sailors they were not allowed on the Wasp because they were from the McCain.
The hide-the-ship scheme, which Mr. Trump insisted he knew nothing about but called a “well meaning” gesture, drew a torrent of criticism on Thursday from retired military officers. They said it was an egregious attempt to politicize the armed forces, while Democratic lawmakers termed it petty vindictiveness against a dead war hero.
The episode came at the end of a visit in which Mr. Trump had already sided with a foreign dictator against his national security adviser over the threat posed by North Korean missiles, and joined the North Korean regime in heaping ridicule on a former vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr.
The email instructing the Navy to obscure the ship, the John S. McCain, came from the White House military operations office, after consultation with a White House advance team working in Japan, according to an administration official. The Navy initially complied with the order by hanging a tarp over the ship’s name. But higher-level officers got wind of the plan and ordered the tarp removed and the barge moved before Mr. Trump arrived.
“It sounds like someone in the chain of command made a boneheaded mistake in judgment,” said Jack Keane, a retired Army general who advises Mr. Trump and said he once tried to broker a reconciliation between him and Mr. McCain.
It is not clear, in any event, if Mr. Trump even saw the McCain during his brief visit. He arrived in Yokosuka on Marine One, and addressed the sailors in a hangar bay below decks on the Wasp.
The acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, has denied knowing about the White House directive. But questions about why the Navy has acquiesced to it are likely to dog Mr. Shanahan when he goes before the Senate for his confirmation hearing in the coming weeks.
Mr. Trump is not the first president to politicize the military: George W. Bush famously landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and spoke to sailors under a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” during the Iraq war. Nor is he the first president to nurse grudges: Richard M. Nixon once ordered a reference to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” deleted from a speech because it was a “Kennedy song,” played at the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy.
But Mr. Trump has taken both habits to greater extremes. Some of the nearly 1,000 sailors and Marines at his speech in Japan wore round patches emblazoned with a likeness of Mr. Trump and the words “Make Aircrew Great Again” — a play on his campaign slogan — on their flight suits.
Critics said Mr. Trump’s animus for Mr. McCain set off a cascade of decisions by lower-level officials that not only dishonored the senator’s memory but also disrespected the sailors who serve on the McCain. In addition to Mr. McCain, the ship is named after his grandfather, John S. McCain Sr., a Navy admiral during World War II, and his father, John S. McCain Jr., an admiral in the Vietnam War era.
“It’s beyond petty,” Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “It’s disgraceful, and the White House should be embarrassed.”
The McCain had already suffered tragedy. The ship, which fired missiles during the Iraq war and survived cat-and-mouse games with Chinese vessels in the South China Sea, was docked at the base in Yokosuka for repairs after a deadly crash off the coasts of Singapore and Malaysia in August 2017, when it collided with a merchant marine vessel. Ten sailors died in the accident.
Mr. McCain took a personal interest in the ship, visiting it in 2015 in Vietnam, where he had been held as a prisoner of war. Cmdr. Micah Murphy, who took command of the ship after the accident, once served as a legislative fellow to the senator. He declined to comment on Thursday.
Mr. Trump said he would not have ordered the ship to be hidden, but he declined to apologize to the sailors who had been kept out of his speech. And he expressed sympathy for the motivations of his staff.
“Now, somebody did it because they thought I didn’t like him, O.K.?” Mr. Trump told reporters. “They were well meaning, I will say. I didn’t know anything about it. I would never have done that.”
“So, I wasn’t a fan of John McCain — I never will be,” he added. “But certainly, I couldn’t care less whether or not there’s a boat named after his father.”
Mr. Trump repeated his reasons for why he disliked Mr. McCain.
“John McCain killed health care for the Republican Party, and he killed health care for the nation,” Mr. Trump said, a reference to the late senator’s critical vote against the president’s health care proposal in July 2017.
Critics faulted Mr. Trump for what they said was a petty war of words against Mr. McCain, who died last year of brain cancer. They also derided him for what they said were his attempts to divide the military.
“We have a long history of keeping our military apolitical,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee who is a former Pentagon official. “The president’s team felt it was appropriate to politicize this event.”
The email from the White House urging the Navy to move the McCain or make sure it was out of sight put officials in a difficult position. The McCain is still undergoing repairs, and moving it from its berth would be tremendously difficult, time consuming and set back the repair schedule.
Navy officials struggled to explain why a tarp was hung over the ship’s name, and later, where the president was scheduled to visit. The tarp, they said, was part of efforts to repair the hull; the barge was a painting barge.
But other officials offered a different account. They said the initial decisions were made by midlevel officers in Japan, working with the White House advance team. The tarp and barge were removed after more senior Navy officials, in Japan and at the Indo-Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, thought better of complying with the White House request.
There were similar questions about the status of the sailors. Two ships at the base did not participate in the president’s visit: the McCain and the Stethem. Their sailors were given 96-hour weekend liberty for Memorial Day. Sailors from the other ships did not get the long liberty.
Officials claimed there was not room for all of the sailors to hear Mr. Trump on the Wasp, an amphibious assault vessel. But they did not explain why the McCain and Stethem were excluded, arguing only that ships were selected to have a broad representation of the sailors on the base. The Navy said that if any sailors were turned away from the Wasp, it was because the space on that ship was scarce.
Defenders of Mr. Trump said it was hard to imagine that he would penalize sailors because of his feelings for Mr. McCain.
“I expect he would see the sailors on the ship and want to talk to them,” Mr. Keane said, “and deflect the fact that the ship is named after Senator McCain.”
But other former military officers were withering in their condemnation of the White House and of the Navy’s role. Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired Army general who served in the Clinton administration, said on Twitter that if Mr. Shanahan knew about the White House’s order, he should resign.
Democrats vying to challenge Mr. Trump in 2020 lost no time in seizing on the episode.
“John McCain was a war hero, should be treated as a war hero — anything less than that is beneath anyone who doesn’t treat him that way,” Mr. Biden said to reporters in Delaware.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, said: “This is not a show. Our military is not a prop. Ships and sailors are not to be toyed with for the benefit of a fragile president’s ego.”

Meghan McCain
✔ @MeghanMcCain

Trump is a child who will always be deeply threatened by the greatness of my dads incredible life. There is a lot of criticism of how much I speak about my dad, but nine months since he passed, Trump won’t let him RIP. So I have to stand up for him.

It makes my grief unbearable.

Rebecca Ballhaus
✔ @rebeccaballhaus
NEW: The White House wanted the USS John McCain “out of sight” for Trump’s visit to Japan. A tarp was hung over the ship’s name ahead of the trip, and sailors—who wear caps bearing the ship’s name—were given the day off for Trump’s visit. w/@glubold …
7:25 PM – May 29, 2019
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Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt, Annie Karni, Julian E. Barnes, John Ismay, Emily Cochrane and Noah Weiland from Washington, and Helene Cooper from Singapore.


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